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Journal shows evolution of a more involved county board

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Dave Bretl | June 2, 2014

I try my best to temper my enthusiasm whenever I write about the Walworth County Board's Journal of Proceedings, but every column on the subject usually evokes at least one comment that I need to “get a life.” 

The journal of proceedings is an indexed compilation of a year's worth of county board meetings. It fulfills two separate statutory directives that require the county clerk “to record at length in a book every resolution adopted, order passed and ordinance enacted” and “to keep and record in a book” true minutes of all of the proceedings of the board. Rather than capturing a calendar year, the journal follows the county board year, which starts in April with its organizational meeting. This year's 2013 journal, therefore, starts in April 2013 and includes the first three months of 2014. Our county clerk, Kim Bushey, is responsible for compiling the latest tome, which contains 540 pages.

The journals interest me at two levels. First, they provide a historical record of the county board's activities. The old books, especially those dating back to the 1800s, read like a historical novel. County supervisors didn't meet very frequently back then and, when they did, they always were doing something interesting, like increasing the wolf bounty or appropriating some ridiculously small amount of money (by modern standards) to build a new hospital or fireproof office. The newer journals don't hold much interest for me from the historical perspective. I've sat through every county board meeting that has been held during the past 13 years. Even though my memory isn't always the sharpest, I usually remember how they turned out. A few of those meetings were hard to sit through once, and I have no interest in reading a blow-by-blow account of them again. What does interest me about the more current journals, however, is the insight that they provide into how the board governs the county. Two measures contained in the journal provide a sense of how the board accomplishes its work; these include communications, ordinances and resolutions.

The term “communications” refers to a portion of the board's agenda that is reserved for letters and correspondence that provide information to the board or urge a particular course of action. The number of communications processed by the board rose dramatically following a 2002 amendment to the county's operating rules. That change encouraged the use of such letters by placing most correspondence directed to supervisors on their monthly agenda. Rather than just complaining about issues but never taking action on them, supervisors and the public can commit their views to writing and submit them to the board. The board, in turn, typically refers the items of correspondence to one of its standing committees. If the idea has merit, the communication will be returned to the board in the form of a proposed ordinance or resolution.

Prior to the rule change, a great deal of information never made it to supervisors. During the period of 1994 to 1996, for example, the board was presented with an average of just 18 items of correspondence per year. One of the fears associated with opening up the process was that supervisors would be inundated with correspondence. Following the rule change the number of communications did, in fact, rise dramatically, but has stabilized in recent years. Supervisors were presented with an average of 141 communications per year between 2010 and 2012. Last year, a total of 116 items were addressed by the board.

A second measure, illustrated by the journals, reveals how the board governs the county through the adoption of resolutions and ordinances. In general, resolutions decide issues on a case-by-case basis. Ordinances, on the other hand, are more permanent in nature, establishing uniform guidelines by which staff, committees or the entire board may make decisions.

For most of our history, ordinances were not codified, that is, collected in a single book. Given the lack of a codebook, it isn't surprising that the board adopted few ordinances. When the board did act, it was typically through resolutions. In the three years immediately preceding codification, from 1994 to 1997, supervisors considered just 39 non-zoning ordinances. In 2013, the board addressed 84 of them. As the county's codebook grows over time, I would expect that the need to adopt new ones will decrease. This hasn't happened yet, however.

Aside from generating some interesting trivia, there is a point to all of this number crunching; ordinances, resolutions and communications present opportunities for elected leaders to become informed and to make decisions. By any measure, a review of the last 15 years of journals reveals a board that is far more active in decision making than it previously had been. The downside of bringing more issues before the board, however, is the ability of supervisors to handle the workload. With informational packets for meetings that can top 200 pages, I always am concerned that supervisors don't get buried in paperwork and that they have enough time to prepare for meetings. The journal provides important insight as to how the board approaches decision making and, more importantly, how the process can be modified if excessive workload becomes an issue.
 
Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.



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